In 1974, at the tender age of twenty-seven I had the wild notion that there might be a future in growing grapes and making wine in the English countryside. At the time, the industry – not that anyone called it that then – was around 165-ha (400-acres) and the preserve of crusty old major-generals, wealthy farmers and a scattering of military retirees. The two dominant varieties were the early(ish) ripening Müller-Thurgau and the hardy French-American hybrid Seyval Blanc. Added to these were a smattering of old (mainly red) hybrids and a few newer German crosses: no Pinot Noir and no Chardonnay. The wines were generally dry, not always a successful style in a marginal climate where natural alcohols were low and acids high, and often thin and lacking in fruit. It wasn’t all doom and gloom and there were some good wines so the prospect of being able to produce something better, more enjoyable and more consumer-friendly, was definitely there.
Two years later, having moved the family to Germany, where I worked for a year in a vineyard and winery, and learnt enough German to spend time at Geisenheim (whose university is well renowned for specializing in wine) and speak to professors and growers about varieties and growing techniques, we returned to Kent to plant our vineyard on a farm my father-in-law owned. We planted 8,000 vines: Müller-Thurgau, Seyval Blanc, Reichensteiner and Gutenborner. The next two years passed by in a haze of caring for the vines, installing trellising and keeping the weeds under control.
In 1979 we harvested our first vintage, all 8,000 bottles of it, which I inexpertly made into wine in the winery we had built. In our second vintage, the 1980, I had the good fortune to make a small batch of Seyval Blanc in which I retained a little bit of residual sugar and some carbon dioxide. I entered it into the national wine competition and was surprised to hear a few weeks later that it had won the top prize, the Gore-Browne Trophy, for the ‘English Wine of the Year’. People joked that I had ‘cheated’. ‘He’s been trained!’ they said. Soon after hearing we had won this accolade, the Sunday Times rang to say it was sending its new wine correspondent, one Jancis Robinson, to write an article on us for the colour magazine. We felt we had arrived. Since then, the English and Welsh wine industry has multiplied many times, and is now nearing 3,500-ha (8,650-acres). Global warming has allowed us to plant Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier to produce world-class sparkling wines, and in good vintages some more than passable still wines. Bacchus is our major still wine variety. The industry, with some pride (I think we can call it that), is producing – but not yet selling – around six million bottles a year. Sales are running at around half that, as much of the sparkling wine produced is still maturing.
Stephen Skelton MW has spent almost the whole of his working life growing grapes, making wine, and advising vine growers in Great Britain. He has also written and lectured extensively on vineyards in and wines from the UK.